The thrill of watching instructors and learners interact in a master class setting—where the master works as a coach, one-on-one, with a highly-developed learner while others observe the process—has struck me as one of the most intimate and rewarding levels of interaction possible between learners and learning facilitators ever since I first observed master classes many years ago at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Learning vicariously from world-renowned musicians as they coached extremely talented music students who performed highly-rehearsed pieces created a combination of excitement, tension, and inclusion for everyone. In the best of circumstances, the master class had a transformative effective on everyone present.
When there is real chemistry between the master and the learner, it’s a beautifully dynamic process to observe. And when arrogance creeps in—as when a learner plays a piece, then the master plays a passage from the same piece and attempts to stimulate conversation by asking, “Why does that sound so much better when I play it than when you do?”—we receive a much-needed reminder that hubris has no place in the learning process (other than to provide examples of what we should never do with our own learners).
Working as much online as I do face-to-face these days, I’ve always wondered how an online master class might be designed and delivered. And thanks to colleagues in the Southeast Florida Library Network (SEFLIN), I had a chance to try it out earlier today by conducting an online master class for learners in the four-part “Mastering Online Facilitation” series I have designed and am facilitating for SEFLIN and its Florida-based learners (July 30 – August 22, 2014).
It was even more exciting and rewarding than I had hoped it would be.
The set-up was as simple as we could possibly make it. Interested learners, who have been exploring various parts of the design and delivery process for facilitating webinars and online meetings, were invited to submit a brief PowerPoint slide deck that they would use as the basis for a five- to 10-minute live, online presentation, or exercise in facilitating meetings. The very small group of us participating in the experiment arrived online 15 minutes before the master class was scheduled to formally begin; that gave us time to engage in a brief tech check so that the sole learner scheduled to present could familiarize herself with the various tools within the platform (Adobe Connect) that we were using. That pre-session time provided something far too few of us remember to incorporate into our learning-facilitation space: time for the learner to become familiar with the learning environment before the formal learning experience begins. More importantly, it left us with a brief period of time to further develop the rapport that creates a supportive learning sandbox and eliminates as many distractions as possible so that the real focus is on learning (not the technology behind the learning—that’s a different part of the lesson).
At the scheduled time, we started recording the session so the learner would be able to focus on her presentation and know that she would be able to review the entire session later. As is the case with any successful master class, this one worked well because the learner already had significant, well-developed skills (from the face-to-face presentation and facilitation work she does). It was also helpful that she was using a presentation comprised of content she had already successfully used onsite (i.e., it was well-rehearsed), so she could almost completely focus on how to provide content engagingly in an online environment.
When she was finished, I couldn’t help but blurt out the first thought that came to mind after being drawn into what amounted to an introductory segment to a longer presentation: “Keep going.” (To keep up our comparison to musical master classes, we could refer to her master class performance as the performance of a prelude to a much longer piece of music.)
It took her only a few seconds to realize the not-so-subtle compliment behind the words: she had hit a home run on her first online outing.
We then circled back on the presentation at a few levels. I first asked her how she felt about her presentation, and the two of us serving as her audience assured her that her perceptions of being halting and a bit off kilter were far from what we as audience members had experienced. I then walked her through her seven-slide presentation, slide by slide, to comment on what struck me as being strong about the slides and her verbal presentation—stopping at the end of each slide to ask her if she had any additional questions or observations. Our final pass through the slide deck was to discuss possible variations to what she had designed (e.g., using more visual elements and smaller amounts of text, finding creative and subtle ways to highlight parts of text so members of her own audience would be immediately drawn to specific elements on a slide at the moment she was verbally addressing those elements).
What was probably most rewarding for all of us was that the lines between alleged master and wonderful learner, in this case, were extremely permeable. We learned as much from her presentation and her questions as she learned from our reactions (and I learned even more when I went back to the recording myself to see how I could improve my own skills at facilitating master classes); we were not telling her how she should have designed and presented her information, we offered variations on her theme and left it to her to decide what she believed will best work for her own learners when she takes that presentation back to them; and we all understood that for every moment we spend in and benefit from occupying the master’s seat onsite or online, we benefit so much more by sharing all the learning that has shaped us—and will continue to shape us—in our own lifelong-learning efforts.